UpLIFTing Young Students

Learning through Inquiry Fellowship and Tutoring (LIFT)

Katherine Hughes on December 5, 2018 in Education

Although Northern Virginia is overall a wealthy area of the United States, not everyone who lives in Northern Virginia is. This economic disparity is visible in many aspects, but one of the most obvious is access to educational opportunities. Learning through Inquiry, Fellowship, and Tutoring (LIFT) aims to change that.

LIFT is an organization and volunteering program at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), one of the highest-ranked public schools in the United States. While other high schools in Northern Virginia are also ranked well, the difference in curriculum, academic rigor, and opportunities available while attending and after graduation between TJHSST and other high schools vary significantly. LIFT aims to give economically disadvantaged students a better chance of being accepted into TJHSST.

LIFT was created in the 2015-2016 school year at TJHSST with the help of a teacher, Frau Szilvia Oszko; an assistant principal, Mr. Shawn Frank; and the principal at the time, Dr. Evan Glazer. One of the first student leaders in LIFT was a senior at TJHSST who faced economic challenges and wanted to help other students in similar situations. Although the faculty and student leadership of LIFT has changed, Rithvik Gundlapalli, a senior member of the LIFT leadership team, says LIFT has and will continue to support mentees.

Although the mission of LIFT is the same, the way to go about this has changed as well. Gundlapalli says, “Previously, the mission of LIFT was to prepare underprivileged, but extremely talented, middle school students to take the TJ test so the playing field was more level and fair… recently, the leadership has made LIFT a ‘high school’ preparatory program. While we still do TJ prep, we have incorporated other training so the students in the program thrive in any high school they end up going to.”

In weekly Saturday morning tutoring sessions, seventh and eighth graders go to TJHSST for test preparation, STEM activities, and general academic support. Student mentors also attend these sessions and provide the students individualized test preparation help after test strategy classes taught by some teachers at TJHSST. The student mentors also organize and lead fun activities for the mentees, such as a scavenger hunt throughout the school to familiarize the mentees with TJHSST and classes it offers.

Although the support LIFT students receive is intensive, LIFT is not a large program. Each year, only 30 eighth graders and 70 seventh graders are allowed to join the program, based on grades, standardized test scores, interest in STEM, and economic situation. Fewer than 10 students have been accepted to TJ since LIFT began. However, according to Gundlapalli, the students in LIFT who were not accepted to TJ are taking advanced classes and participating in STEM extracurriculars at the schools they are attending, which could be partially attributed to LIFT.

Another way the scope of LIFT is limited is by the mentors. “In terms of dependence on service, every single aspect of the program relies on the complete dedication of the high school mentors. Each mentor goes through an application program which is followed by training for all accepted mentors so that they can be as useful as possible,” Gundlapalli says. This leads to only 30 mentors who are matched with mentees, so LIFT is a small, localized program.

Unfortunately, LIFT does not accept donations or outside help, besides that of TJHSST student volunteers. However, Gundlapalli encourages others who are interested to support the broader cause. He says, "Preparing students for high school and encouraging an environment of challenges allows these students to grow, which is valuable for everyone."

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